Archive for freedom

Paradise Lost?

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

THE GIVERThis is my latest column for America magazine, which appears in the October 6, 2014, issue.

Dystopian films based on dystopian books have been all the rage recently. Hits like “The Hunger Games” and the “Divergent” series have sparked interest in the darker side of futuristic imagination. Perhaps for this reason Lois Lowry’s 1993 book, The Giver, has finally been adapted for the big screen after 20 years.

But The Giver is not actually about a dystopian world. It is, ironically, about a utopian paradise.

The film adaptation may be one of the rare instances in which the visualization of a powerful story enhances the narrative rather than disappointing the audience. It opens with a world of sameness, reason, order, “precision of language” and black and white. All difference, creativity, passion and emotion have been removed from human existence. There is no violence, no dispute, no variation—and it seems to be the perfect society in action. And as far as any citizen knows, this is the way it always has been and ought to be.

This is true for everybody except a community elder known as “The Receiver,” whose responsibility it is to keep safe the memory of what the world was once like, the world of diversity, passion, creativity, emotion, confusion, grays and colors. The Receiver is occasionally consulted for advice by the other elders, who watch constantly over the community, make pronouncements from speakers above, establish laws and decide which persons (especially the newborn and elderly) are “released,” a euphemism for homicide. The Receiver, who is getting up in age, knows how things once were and therefore is aware of how things could be.

The story’s protagonist is a young man named Jonas, who is selected to be the next Receiver. His responsibility is to receive the collective memory from the old Receiver, who by virtue of his instructive role now becomes “The Giver.” Over time the Giver passes this memory to Jonas, and Jonas begins to see color and nuance, to know suffering and happiness, to appreciate that things have been and could be another way.

Lowry’s story is very creative, but the allegory isn’t very original.

It goes back at least to St. Augustine, from whose commentaries on Genesis we get a depiction of paradise, a prelapsarian world in which human beings do not act according to emotion, do not experience passion and do not disobey the Creator. So they live in perfect freedom (libertas), by which Augustine means obedience to God’s will as opposed to being governed by disordered desires, what Augustine calls concupiscence. In paradise human beings acted with complete rationality, which meant the absence of sexual desire and pleasure, as well as much of what we associate with everyday human emotions, including pain and happiness.

Augustine’s vision of human life before the Fall looks a lot like the world in which “The Giver” opens. The focus on rationality and absence of emotions suggests that harmony and concord once ruled, but that a single act of human disobedience—think apples and snakes—set everything on a dangerous trajectory.

This is the trajectory the elders in “The Giver” wished to reverse in creating their own version of rational paradise. However, as Jonas sees both the potential for good and ill that arises from a complex and colorful world in which humanity exercises free will (liberum arbitrium), he realizes that the risk of suffering and the messiness of life are necessary if one wishes to experience love and happiness, even if they are at times fleeting.

“The Giver” puts into stark relief an uncomfortable truth that human freedom comes at a cost, and the cost is the risk of abuse and misuse of that very same freedom. Some people, like Augustine and the elders, believe that the solution to suffering and pain is the elimination of choice and complexity. Perhaps some people, like Augustine and the elders, while well meaning, are wrong. If we all thought, spoke and acted alike, things might be better—maybe even perfect. Things might be simpler, more black and white. Yet they would not be authentically human. The truth is we are all givers and receivers of memory, inheritors of the history of salvation that beckons us to exercise our freedom for the common good. Paradise is not found in restricting freedom and suppressing emotion; it is found in following in the footprints of the most human (and divine) of all, Jesus Christ.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton: A New Look at the Spiritual Inspiration of His Life, Thought, and Writing (2014).’

Photo: “The Giver” film 2014

O Key of David: God’s Will and Prisons of Our Own Making

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 20, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

gate of heavenO Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

In the past, I’ve thought about today’s O Antiphon in terms of the captivity that binds us, entraps us, and prevents us from the freedom that God desires for us. The coming of Christ as the “Key of David,” presumably offers us the escape by means of the unlocking of these restraints or prisons, literal or figurative, of our lives.

However, this year I’m much more attentive to the first line of the antiphon: “O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven.”

This tone-setting introduction for the rest of the antiphon that deals with captivity, imprisonment, and freedom, could easily be overlooked or misunderstood. It could be overlooked because force with which the remainder of the antiphon captivates the proclaimer and hearers. It could be misunderstood because of the general feeling that comes with talking about prisons, death, darkness, and captivity — it doesn’t take much imagination to think that some might see God’s controlling the gate of heaven at will as arbitrary and threatening.

This is not my sense of the opening line. That God controls the gate of heaven, as it is described, at will suggests to me that what we might likely fear — an arbitrary, spiteful, or vindictive God/Gatekeeper — is not at all the occupier of that position. In fact, what God has revealed about God’s self to us over the course of human history, what is contained in Scripture and experienced in the Christ event, really rejects this sort of caricature of the almighty hall monitor.

I see a God who desires that all people and all of creation return to their source — God. Creation does a pretty good job on its own being what it truly is. In other words, blades of grass or puppies have a difficult time sinning because they aren’t in the business of trying to be something that they’re not.

We humans, however, make that a full-time job.

What God really desires from us is that we live to the fullest the lives we were created to live, individually loved into being, uniquely and particularly cared-for from all eternity. Yet, this is not how we live. We live out of fear, out of a desire for power or control, out of a sense of our own best interest over against that of anybody (or everybody) else.

What God really desires, it would seem to me, is that all come through the “gate of heaven” and escape the prison, the darkness, and the shadow of death that ensnares us in the fear of facing ourselves, others, and God simply as we are.

To say that Christ, the key of David, controls the gates at will suggests that it is “Thy Will” that is done, not our own. God’s will in Christ is to care for all people and welcome home the prodigal son, the woman at the well, the lame, the blind, the unholy, the adulterer, the cheater, the sinner, all people. Thank God that it is Thy Will by which the gate of heaven is controlled and not according to our will.

That this might be the will of God, the desire for all to be themselves in right relationship with others, creation, and God, means to live in the freedom mentioned at the end of the antiphon. The prison is of our own making. The key to the chains is living as we are supposed to live in God’s eyes. The freedom comes with making God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Photo: Stock

O Holy Lord: Come, God of All Possibilities and Set Us Free

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons with tags , , , , , , , on December 18, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

walking young man over field and sunsetO sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

The use of the honorific “Lord” has, over the years, become the source of some controversy. Many women and men, with good reason, have suggested that its use reflects the inherent and uncritically appropriated patriarchal traditions of ancient and even more-recent male-dominated power structures that subordinate women to the men who lord over them. There have been mixed responses by black theologians, some of whom see the association with the nineteenth-century American slave holders who were the lords of their manor, while others value the title’s use because, in reference to God or Jesus Christ, the notion subverts the power-structure, abusive association, and priorities of the earthly lord. These are but two of many of the ways the term has come under question. With due respect to those who find the term offensive or problematic, we are nonetheless left with “lord” on this second day of the O Antiphons and we should try our best to see in what ways it might be speaking to us.

In the past I’ve written on this day about imprisonment and what it means to have the lord come and “set us free,” but I’m thinking this year a bit more of the recent tragic events in Newtown, CT, where so many young lives and those of adults were senselessly taken away. I’m thinking about the reflection I offered this weekend in response to that event and recalling what it might mean to talk about God’s “mighty hand.”

If we are to understand God’s mightiness as evocative of a God of all possibilities (as in, I might do this or might do that), then what could it mean for us to consider a lord, for whom “nothing is impossible,” that could set us free?

Perhaps one of the the ways this God of all possibilities sets us free is by undoing our human expectations. This reference to the coming of Christ as adonai, “Lord” as it’s translated from the Hebrew in the Old Testament, refers to the term of respect that the people of Israel would use as a place-holder for the name of God. Because the lord’s name could not be said, “Lord” became the stand-in reference for the God of all possibilities and the God who was, as Exodus reminds us in the account of Moses before the burning bush, the God of our ancestors who cares about God’s people and who is there for us.

The greatest fulfillment of the covenant comes in the form of a complete and utter surprise: a newborn child who is anything but the lord of the manor, the oppressive ruler, the powerful God who had smote the Egyptians. God continues to surprise us by unsettling our expectations.

So what does this God, the coming of adonai as a human being, mean for those who are in need of being set free? Could it be that at times we don’t really know that it is that holds us back? We really don’t understand what is and isn’t important in our lives, such that we become captive to things that we no longer thinkingly realize?

There are indeed those for whom the prayer of this O Antiphon applies in real and concrete ways, for their captivity is of the most identifiable kind. But we are all, in some way, constricted by the confines of expectations, pressures, guilt, fear, self-importance, self-hatred, and so on. Yet, the freedom of a God of all possibilities is offered to us in new and unexpected ways in this particular, divine, mighty hand. The hand of a child. The hand of a God-with-us.

God’s hand is there, extended in invitation to be in relationship and offered to free us from the captivities of our lives. How do we respond to the coming of adonai?

Photo: Stock

Jonathan Franzen and Freedom

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 21, 2010 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

I asked one of my classes today whether or not they had heard of the new novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  With blank stares and shaking heads, no one admitted having the vaguest familiarity with this work.  I had been lecturing on inadequate approaches to scriptural interpretation and just finished explaining the concept of scripture as a religious classic.  Leaning on English and American literature to provide some sort of supplementary aid in conceiving of a ‘classic.’  A Tale of Two Cities, Of Mice and Men, Moby Dick: or, the Whale – just to name a few.  It was then that I said, having recently read Franzen’s latest opus, that I believed Freedom would likely join their ranks someday.

What makes Freedom so great?  There are a lot of things.  First, Franzen is, both in terms of creativity and literary skill, simply a genius.  He is able to imagine not only the world of a this or that particular character, but several characters’ worlds that overlap and concurrently tell the story of lives lived, lost and everything in between.

This particular novel seems, at least to me, to capture very well the sense of collective American life during the last decade complete with its anger, frustration, confusion, self-doubt, betrayal, and compromise.  But even more impressive is his ability to so convincingly present the inner life of a woman at various periods of her life (college, early adulthood and middle age).  One might presume that a man would best be able to translate his own experience into the experience of a male character with some ease, but it seems as though his creation and development of Patty is nothing short of fascinating.  Furthermore, a good quarter to third of the novel is written in ‘her hand’ as a therapeutic third-person exercise, the product of which becomes a liminal element in the story itself.

The characters are captivating.  What fascinated me the most, though, was Franzen’s ability to present the nuances of relationship.  (Here comes the connection with a blog titled Dating God!)  I’m not just talking about the relationship between husband and wife, complicated by compromise, strife and simply life as they know it.  No, I’m talking about ALL of the relationships.  Even the most neglected, like those between the daughter Jessica and the rest of her family, bear enough authenticity in the limited personal revelations to which we are privy that I can’t help but feel as though I still “get” them.

Love is an interesting emotion that gets presented and is experienced by the characters in, I believe, the most realistic and honest way I’ve so far seen in a novel.  Love is not necessarily what the movies and songs and (previous) novels have led us to believe.  We all know that, which is often the reason why so many of us rush to the theatre and stereo and bookstore.  Franzen’s brilliant engagement of that major factor of life, love and those we love and how we love, made the book incredibly real.  Perhaps the most telling example is found in the tremendous complexity of emotion that exists between Walter and Richard, college roommates and best friends, and what their relationship means to each of them in the decisions that they make, in the way they go about the world and in the way they interact with others.

The word “Freedom” appears a noticeably frequent number of times throughout the book, leaving the reader to puzzle over Franzen’s clever title, ultimately providing no completely satisfactory answer to the question: what is freedom?  But isn’t that the point.  What constitutes our freedom and in what ways are we or aren’t we free in life?

I highly recommend Freedom to anyone who might be looking for a good book.  I assure you, you will not find it easy to put the book down.  And who knows, it may just be, as one critic hails it, the “book of the century” and someday enter that distinguished collection of texts known as “the classics.”  It already is in my view.

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